Research News & Features

Society

Researchers Find Work Performance Standards Higher for Women; In surveys of American and British employees, gender gap persists


PULLMAN, Wash. - The joke, "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good," may not be totally off the mark in the workplace.

In a recent study, no matter how they sliced the data and controlled certain variables, sociologists Julie Kmec of Washington State University and Elizabeth Gorman of the University of Virginia came to the same conclusion: women say they have to work harder than men.

On five different surveys given in different years, to different groups of men and women in Britain and the United States, a gender gap persisted in ratings of the statement: "My job requires that I work very hard." Women were significantly more likely to say they strongly agreed or agreed.

"Even when women and men are matched on extensive measures of job characteristics, family and household responsibilities, and individual qualifications, women report that their jobs require more effort than men do," the researchers concluded. "Between a man and a woman who hold the same job, shoulder the same burdens at home and have the same education and skills, the woman is likely to feel she must work harder."

What explains the association between gender and required work effort, if it's not more difficult jobs or more demands at home?

"We argue that the association between sex and reported required work effort is best interpreted as reflecting stricter performance standards imposed on women, even when women and men hold the same jobs," said the researchers in the paper, "We (Have to) Try Harder: Gender and Required Work Effort in Britain and the United States," to be released on Nov. 21 in the December issue of the journal Gender and Society.

"A lot of experimental research has shown that people rate the same performance as better when told it was done by a man. It follows that women have to do better than a man in order to get the same evaluation. Here we see how this plays out in the effort women must put in at work," Gorman said. "This is what women are up against. They have to prove themselves."

The statement in the survey about required work effort is not one in which employees are comparing themselves to the opposite sex, noted Kmec. It's also not asking for a perception of how hard the work is or how much effort they actually exerted.

"Our focus is on required work effort," the sociologists wrote in their article, "the effort that an employee is expected to exert in order to perform her or his job at a level that is satisfactory to the employer. It is important to distinguish required effort from an employee's actual exerted effort."

The researchers compared results from the same question asked in nationally representative surveys in 1977, 1992, two in 1997, and in 2001. The four later national surveys used the same statement as in the 1977 survey to yield comparable answers. The study concentrated its analysis on the two surveys conducted in 1997, the U.S. National Study of the Changing Workforce and the Skills Survey of the Employed British Workforce, both comprising cross-sectional, representative interviews of about 3,500 and almost 2,500 workers, respectively.

Controlling for physical and mental demands of the job and whether family responsibilities drained energy, Kmec and Gorman found that neither group of factors explain the different findings about work effort. The only interpretation that held up was that women were held to higher performance standards.

The researchers analyzed the survey data to see if, in fact, women did have more difficult jobs, but that was not the case. Even when the jobs were almost identical, women still were significantly more likely to say they had to work very hard.

In looking for another potential reason, the sociologists considered whether domestic responsibilities outside of work, including child care and housework, made women feel more fatigued and that they had to work harder to keep up, but that did not emerge as the answer either.

"Marriage and parenthood had the same effect on reports of required effort for women and men. In the U.S. sample, the researchers were able to match workers on the number of hours they spent on childcare and housework. Between men and women who performed the same amount of child care and housework, women were still more likely to say their jobs required them to work very hard."

Gorman and Kmec then compared their findings to research about attitudes and beliefs held about men and women in the workplace. "We know that people give lower marks to an essay, a painting or a résumé when it has a woman's name on it," Gorman said. "And when a man and a woman work together on a project, people assume the man contributed more than the woman did. Even when a woman's work is indisputably excellent, people don't believe she's good-they think she got lucky. In light of this previous research, it makes sense to conclude that women have to work harder to win their bosses' approval."

Gorman stressed that it wouldn't be fair to use this research to reinforce stereotypes. "We don't want employers to be exploiting female workers," she said, because they know women impose higher standards on themselves and will work harder.

Instead, Kmec noted, employers should take into account women's hard work when considering who to promote and reward. "We do not want to insist that female workers shirk their job responsibilities to make this gap go away. Rather, we hope employers make job performance standards more transparent and be held accountable for their evaluations of women at work," said Kmec.

The possible consequences of the effort gap in the workplace include some added difficulties: the quality of women's work experience is likely to be lower than men's; physical and emotional effects could, in turn, have negative repercussions for families; and the difference in required effort could also have consequences for women's careers, making it harder for them to be recognized and promoted.

Related News

  • Facebook Survey Accurately Predicts “American Idol” Winners - WSU Experts Explain Why

    PULLMAN, Wash. – A new trend in surveys has a Facebook site accurately predicting the American Idol top and bottom three winners every week. Now, researchers at Washington State University Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, the largest university-based survey research center in the Pacific Northwest, explain how this could happen.

  • WSU Anthropologist Receives NSF Grant to Study the Evolution of Childhood

    PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State University biocultural anthropologist Courtney Meehan has received a CAREER grant of $500,378 from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Science to undertake a five-year, cross-cultural study on the evolution of childhood and how nonparental cooperative care affects child health and development.

  • WSU Researcher Links State of US Welfare to Growth of Military-Industrial Complex

    PULLMAN, Wash. – A leading Washington State University sociologist argues in a recently published study that the United States’ failure to achieve health care and social welfare reforms on a par with the world’s other most affluent democracies was a result of the growth of the U.S. military-industrial complex during World War II.

  • Spotted Owl Had Little Effect on Olympic Peninsula Poverty, Unemployment, WSU Research Finds

    PULLMAN, Wash.—A major fear of the 1990s spotted owl controversy—that less logging would increase unemployment and poverty—did not significantly materialize on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, according to a new analysis by a Washington State University researcher.

  • New course prepares engineers to be better educators

    The first day of teaching for many professors is like jumping into the deep end of the pool - without swimming lessons. University professors are not required to, and often do not, have training in education.

  • Exclusion of cell-phone users in surveys studied

    PULLMAN - It is estimated that U.S. cell-phone-only households have increased from about 4 percent in 2004 to more than 14 percent in 2007, with 33 percent of cell-phone respondents having no landline telephone, according to research featured in the spring 2009 WSU Academic Showcase.

  • Key to curbing aggressive driving

    Criminal justice doctoral student Yu-Sheng Lin tapped into it in his study of risky and aggressive driving behaviors. Surveying Washington State University students, who averaged the age of 19, he joined up with marketing graduate student Mark Mulder and associate professor Jeffrey Joireman to look at the effects of impulsivity and thrill-seeking on dangerous driving.

  • Extension program to strengthen families expands

    PULLMAN – WSU’s ability to support parents and youth through WSU Extension’s Strengthening Families Program for parents and youth 10 to 14-years-old has recently expanded to the state’s most populated area, thanks to a grant from the Raikes Foundation.

  • Doctoral Researcher Documents Skills of Latino Child Care Providers

    PULLMAN, Wash.—Some Latino child care providers may not read and write well enough to fill out state licensing forms, says Cara Preuss, but that does not necessarily mean they’re unable to care for children and help them learn.

  • WSU, CSU Researchers Find Price Tag’s Leftmost Digit Makes a Big Difference

    PULLMAN, Wash. – Consumers may consider themselves savvy bargain hunters, but they often make surprising choices based on the first – or leftmost – digit of a price, according to a new study by Colorado State University and Washington State University.

  • Washingtonians Voice Support for Merit Selection of Judges

    SPOKANE, Wash.— The results of a Fall, 2008 survey of registered voters across Washington state indicates that the state’s residents appear ready to change the way in which the state’s judges are selected. This finding is contained in a report of the results of a statewide survey of nearly 1,200 registered voters conducted by Nicholas Lovrich, Director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services in Pullman, and David Brody, associate professor and academic director of the Criminal Justice Program at Washington State University in Spokane.

Research News and Features, PO Box 641040, Washington State University 99164-0932, 509-335-3581, Contact Us